(Early Evening) Late Night Thoughts

This has been a weird week for ome, and a really weird weekend, especially from inside my own mind. I miss my mother, terribly, more than I have in months. I wish she were here, so that I could reach out and talk to her, try to sort out what’s happening to me. In lieu of that, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting and watching Skittles asleep on my lap, and thinking.

I just got an e-mail (well, a couple of days ago, but I just opened it) from my college alumnae association. It linked to a slideshow of the college campus in the winter, and while snow always looks prettier in pictures than it is in real life, I miss snow, and its brightness. For that matter, I miss winter in L.A. too, where it’s only mildly cool, and the palm trees are decorated with white lights wrapped around their trunks. I wonder if I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder… the gray mornings and winter chill are starting to get to me, and I’m counting down the days to the solstice, because even though there’s still a lot of winter to go, at least after the winter solstice, the days will start getting longer again. (It’s tomorrow, thank the deities.)

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7 Random Things

I was tagged by TheJinx at Brain Lag to share 7 random or weird things about myself. I’m not going to tag anyone else for this meme (I’m not sure I have seven regular readers!) but I thought it would be fun to share.

1. I currently have the remains of a temporary tattoo (of a lion head) on my neck. I succumbed to peer pressure yesterday. But it was strange enough having it there that I scrubbed most of it off in the shower this morning.

2. My last temporary tattoo, by contrast, was a Jolly Rogers flag on my upper arm, which lasted for two weeks. 

3. I’m wearing my favorite pair of jeans, which have a rip in the inner thigh. It’s sort of strange spot for a pair of jeans to rip. I wonder if it’s possible to patch it?

4. I always have cold toes and cold feet. Winter and Summer. Usually I don’t even notice it, until someone else remarks on it.

5. Speaking of toes and feet, I have long feet and long toes, and it turns out that I get my feet from my mother, and she got them from her father. We all have the same feet. 

6. I’m addicted to chapstick. Seriously, regular ole’ unflavored SPF 15 chapstick.

7. In cooking, my favorite fresh herb is cilantro, and I can’t stand parsley. I know it’s usually the other way around. I don’t mind parsley (as much) in things other people make, but every time I try to cook with it, I just think, “ugh, what is that?”

This is one of those weird things about me that I never think to share when I have to tell people weird things about myself. I’m not triskadecaphobic, at all–I have nothing against Friday the Thirteenth. Nor do I particularly like it. But I really enjoy Thursday the Thirteenth, or as it was yesterday, Saturday the Thirteenth. I always think, “so close! But no…”

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Berg’s book, Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True the last couple of days. It was one of the books that I picked up with the other writing books from the library. But this one was different than the others. I picked it up on impulse right as I was leaving the section on writing… Something about the title or the cover just grabbed me. I chose the other books I did because they were specifically about the craft of putting together a novel. Books on plot, on structure, on character. 

This book is something different. It has a chapter on recipes. As in, food. Okay, so that’s not exactly something you look for in a book on writing, but I think it gets across the essence of this book. It’s part memoir, part writing advice, part conversation with someone you really want to have as a friend. 

It reminds me a bit of Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing, or perhaps Anne Lamott’s. It’s not so much about how to write, as it is about how to open your mind and live as a writer, how to see the world through writer’s eyes and to translate it to the written word.

I think this book is worth its price alone for the chapter on writing exercises. Page after page of writing exercises, randomly arranged, writing exercises that open the imagination. Here’s just a few of them: 

•Use these three words in a sentence or brief paragraph: dream, heart, gold. 

•Light through her lace curtains, _________ as _____________.

•If your bed could talk, how would it describe you?

•Your favorite cup

Her “homework” for that chapter is to make up ten exercises of your own. In another chapter, one on “writing myths,” she challenges her own assertion about one of the myths she mentions, and asks you to try it yourself, to prove her either right or wrong. 

I love this book. I’m inspired simply reading it. I find myself itching to try the writing exercises, to try the homework in the other chapters, even to cook one of the recipes she shares. I want to keep this book close to me, and though I’ve never read anything by her before, I requested two of her novels from the library.

Understanding the Three Act Structure

Okay… there have been times before that I’ve expressed my distaste for the three act structure, as I previously understood it. Basically, I didn’t understand what differentiated Act II and Act III… I got the crossing of the point-of-no-return from Act I to Act II, but I was under the impression that Act III was just the “wrapping up” of the story. 

A couple of nights ago, I listened to the Writing Excuses podcast, which I’ve newly discovered, and absolutely love, and specifically, Season 2, Episode 8, which is on the three act structure. One of them (I haven’t been listening long enough to tell them all apart easily, and since I was listening before falling asleep, I’m a bit hazy on the details anyway) said that if he defined Act II as “try and fail, try and fail, try and fail,” he defined the crossing point from Act II as “try, fail, and learn” in that the characters have still failed what they were trying to do, but that they learned some critical piece of information that prepared them to go into the final battle and win.

I highly recommend you go listen to the podcast now, because there’s a lot of good information, it’s only 15 minutes long, and it’s free and easily accessible. 

The other source of information that I’ve found on Three Act structure is one of the writing books I checked out of the library last week, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell. I’ve only read the first few chapters so far… he definitely has a knack for naming and defining elements of writing. 

His chapter on the three-act structure is a great example of that… he describes it as “A Disturbance and Two Doors.” The idea is that the disturbance happens in Act I. Up until the Disturbance, your protagonist (or what he calls the Lead) has just been living his or her life. Then the disturbance happens, and at that point, a door presents itself. If the protagonist doesn’t go through that door (basically, chooses to walk away from the conflict) then the rest of the story doesn’t happen. But if he or she does go through that door, then you’re in Act II. (And later, the second door takes you into Act III.) 

What I like about this view of it, is that walking through the door is something that the protagonist deliberately has to do… she has to make a choice.

One of the things I realized in writing my first draft of Dexter Moon is that far too often, Dexter and Marie seem to be just along for the ride… This bit of explanation cements that in my mind, and one of the things I’ll be focusing on in my revision is finding a way for Dexter to literally make that choice to walk through that doorway early on in the story.

When a character walks into a store…

Have you ever seen one of your characters in person?

I did, today.

I’m currently working in a toy store part time. Today, one of our customers was a woman, late thirties, with a young daughter, about three or so. She was checking out, and stayed, talking, for quite a while. I wasn’t actually helping her, I was doing something else while someone else helped her, but I was participating in the conversation, and as I looked at her, I thought… ‘you know, she looks a lot like Dexter Moon.’

It was a random thought, out of nowhere, but as soon as I thought it, I realized it was true… She had dark red hair, just past shoulder length, parted in the middle, and wore a simple black sweater with jeans and high-heeled (and I mean, stilletto spike heels) boots). It wasn’t so much what she was wearing (I can’t imagine Dex in those boots on her day off) but her whole attitude…professional-turned-mommy.

And then, just as I thought that, she leaned forward, and said, “you know, if I had known how much fun it is to have children, I would have had my daughter earlier.”

And that’s what blew my mind. Because fast-forward Dexter about 10 years, and I could perfectly imagine her there, in that woman’s spot, telling us all about how much she was looking forward to Christmas now that she had a child. There was nothing that woman said that couldn’t have equally well have come out of Dexter’s mouth. Again, in about ten years.

And it’s not something I’d ever thought about consciously… What Dexter would be like when she had kids, or where she would be ten years down the line. And I probably wouldn’t have realized the connection, in terms of her outlook, except that she had already reminded me slightly of Dexter physically. 

Crazy. And very cool.

The Emily Books

Well, rather than editing, I finished Emily’s Quest, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, tonight. 

I, like so many other women, grew up with the Anne of Green Gables series of books. Or rather, they grew up with me. I’ve read them all, most of them multiple times. As I grew up, different books spoke to me, as I empathized with different times in Anne’s life.

The only other book I’d ever read by Montgomery was Emily Climbs. Again, I’m not sure how that particular book made it into my own personal library, but I loved it–possibly more so than the Anne books–and read it over and over. 

It’s the middle book of three: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest. You can tell, when you read it. Many of the characters and relationships are not explained fully, and there are countless references to events in Emily of New Moon. It ends on a questioning note… the stories are not tied up completely, though there is a sense of where they are going. 

But mostly, it’s the story of a young writer. In the very first chapter of Emily Climbs, Emily sits in her room, “writing herself out” in her diary. In Emily of New Moon, the story is about Emily adjusting to her mother’s side of the family, whom she must go live with after her father passes away. The first chapter starts with a description of the home she shared with her father. 

But in Emily Climbs, the central conflict of the story is in Emily learning to be a writer. The phrase, “Emily Climbs” is a reference to a poem that Emily (As well as Montgomery herself) finds inspiration in… it tells of climbing an “Alpine path” to fame. The quoted lines:

Then whisper, blossom, in thy sleep
  How I may upward climb
The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
  That leads to heights sublime;
How I may reach that far-off goal
  Of true and honoured fame,
And write upon its shining scroll
  A woman’s humble name.”

Emily is sent to Shrewsbury to attend High School with her friends… but in exchange must promise not to write “anything untrue” while she is there. She thinks it will be a very difficult thing, though her teacher and mentor thinks it will be very good for her writing. She is still able to write poetry, and character sketches, and essays, and almost everything that happens to her in the novel turns into fodder for her writing somehow. (Or it is not, which has its own significance.) She starts to gain some success as a writer, though it is not an easy path for her. 

I devoured Emily Climbs (which I greeted like the old friend it is) and Emily’s Quest, the third book in the series tonight. I have to admit that I don’t much like Emily’s Quest–it focuses far more on her romances, than on her experience as a writer. But there was a moment I did like, quite a bit. Montgomery clearly did quite a bit of planning for Emily’s Quest, because it follows through several throwaway references from Emily Climbs (at least, I’d thought they were throwaways). One of which was a letter from herself at 14 to herself at 24. In Emily Climbs, the contents of that letter are never revealed… she just mentions writing it in her diary. But in Emily’s Quest, when she turns 24, she reads it. It’s full of hope and dreams for her future self, a vision of herself married and a famous author, with everything she wanted at her feet. Emily at twenty-four, is none of those things, and had a rather bad year beside, and reads it, feeling very cynical about the letter, and her naive self who wrote it. And then something wonderful happens.

I’m 24 now, and at 14 I might have written exactly that sort of letter to myself. That moment in the story rang very true to me. 

Montgomery apparently saw much more of herself in Emily than in Anne, and in fact, apparently many of Emily’s experiences were taken from her own life. There’s sort of an interesting quality to the books, in that often the narrator addresses us as if we were reading the biography of, say, an author, and many of the stories are told as excerpts from Emily’s diaries.

A couple of links to finish us off… First, the text of Montgomery’s The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career, which I haven’t had a chance yet to read fully, but want to at some point. Second, though Emily Climbs was first published in 1925, meaning it’s not in the public domain yet in the U.S., it is in the public domain in places like Australia, meaning you can find the text online at Project Gutenberg Australia. (Most of the Anne books, by the way, can be found at the U.S.-based Project Gutenberg, if you’ve never stopped by.) Of course, if you’re not in Australia, or if you’d rather read the books on paper, you can probably find them just as easily at your local library, like I did.

Quick Editing Update

So, I’ve been writing a lot about what I’ve been reading lately, and though I’ve considered yet another post about Twilight (which I finished last night while playing the surprisingly addictive iPod touch game, TapDefense), and am definitely planning one on Emily Climbs, by L.M. Montgomery, I kind of wanted to write a quick update about editing Dexter Moon.

So, I’m currently about 30 pages into my first draft… the first few scenes were definitely the most difficult, because I had to figure out what I wanted to do with the opening, and then there were a couple of scenes right off the bat that weren’t quite right, and weren’t quite wrong, either. But for now, things are going fairly smoothly… I hope to get another 20 or so pages done this afternoon. 

And, I found someone to Beta Read my first draft for me, which is exciting.

Also, I wanted to throw this out there if anyone interested. This idea is one I’m stealing from Jinx, over at Brain Lag. In short, I’m offering to trade NaNovels with anyone who’s interested. The catch is that we won’t qualify our trades with any preambles. No, not even about the bad grammer, or the un-spellchecked typos. Definitely not about the dropped storylines, or the way one of your characters’ names changed three times in the course of the first hundred pages.

I traded with Jinx, and there’s something so freeing about knowing that your unedited raw work is just out there in the world, being seen by someone other than yourself. Plus, it’s fun to see what other people have written.

If you’re interested, just leave a comment, or e-mail me.